A Journey Through “Picture Stories: The Art of Europe and the Americas”
by Beth Taylor-Schott
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has been shaking things up since last September with a new hanging of its permanent collection, Picture Stories: The Art of Europe and the Americas. It’s hard not to notice the difference in the Sterling Morton West gallery, for example. If you are looking for stylistic unity, or even expecting to find just one artistic medium, the room looks like a jumble. The Northern Renaissance and Baroque masters Dürer and Rembrandt share a wall with the modern artist Frederico Cantú, their delicate engravings and etchings adjacent to another wall bearing an enormous photo-collage by the Guatemalan artist Luis Gonzàles-Palma. Elsewhere, a 19th-century French academic painting by Jules Breton confronts a monumental quasi-cubist charcoal by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. On top of all of this, the room includes a painting by Chagall, prints by Picasso, and a model of a pediment by the neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman.
If you stop looking just at the style, and instead focus on the subjects of the works, the room hangs together remarkably well. Mythic and religious figures, gestures, and objects appear and reappear as one moves from piece to piece. In one of Rembrandt’s etchings, we see Christ crucified on the cross, while across the room in the Martínez, two women pray before a figure of Christ on a crucifix. One of these women holds a taper in a gesture that is a near-mirror image of the figure in Breton’s “The Pardon,” another depiction of female piety, which it faces. Back on the other side of the room, Dürer’s St. Philip holds a cross up in front of himself as if it were a candle, and on and on. In a similar manner, centaurs and nymphs cavort throughout the gallery in prints, photographs, and wax relief, interpreted by artists of different centuries and continents. It is easy to imagine many connections between the works here: connections between one artist and another, between different cultures, and between different eras and places.
This play upon theme and subject matter continues to a greater and lesser degree in all of the galleries that feature the permanent collection. At times a roughly chronological arrangement seems in place. At other points, it is clearly turned on its head. You need to look closely in order to recognize the deviations from the usual historical narrative in the Campbell gallery, for example, where religious paintings dominate, and where one might not notice at first the historical distance between, say, the 19th-century New Mexican retablos and the 16th-century Russian icons, precisely because the two seem on first glance to share a basic visual language.
In the Preston Morton gallery, on the other hand, the visual correspondences between strikingly different depictions of the human figure are impossible to miss, and all the more entertaining for it. This gallery offers us the chance to contemplate an Edward Weston nude alongside a Degas drawing of a dancer next to a photograph of Martha Graham. It encourages us to look back and forth between the works on the walls and the sculpture on the floor, helping us see correspondences between a Maillol torso, for example, and the painted Dali figure behind it; or between a Mercié sculpture, a John Singer Sargent painting of a sculpture, and a Braque depiction of a figure so nearly monochromatic that it seems sculptural itself.
This new way of arranging art in a museum goes against a strong tradition. In the permanent collection of most museums the art is arranged in chronological order. Duccio comes before Giotto, who comes before Botticelli. If you follow the right path through the museum, you can see the history of art unfolding in front of your eyes. A traditional museum thus tells a story about style in art, one particular story about the way that the look of paintings and sculptures changes over time.
There are a number of problems with this, and academic art history has been occupied with many of them for the last several decades. Why should a museum, which is meant to serve the whole community, tell only one story? Who gets to decide which story it is? Who is served, politically and culturally, by that story?
Even from the point of view of an average visitor walking through the museum, a straightforward chronological arrangement can be problematic. If the museum is telling just one story, and you don’t know how to read that story— either because you didn’t take that art history class, or because you’ve forgotten it, or because you faked your way through it in the first place — then you are pretty much out of luck. It’s also true that the story of how styles of art change over time is actually pretty abstract. Many people don’t relate to it very well. Most of us like a work of art because we relate to its subject matter. The style of a work — that is, the way that an artist has depicted the subject matter — can make it more or less interesting, but only a minority of museum visitors are interested first and foremost in the way something is rendered.
What to do, especially if you want to make the museum a more interesting, engaging place for more people? The answer that the Santa Barbara Museum of Art proposes is to re-hang the permanent collection — to rearrange the way that the pictures are hung — to use the museum to tell more and different stories.
For the expert on art, such an installation offers hours of interpretive fun. A certain PhD in art history from Berkeley that I know thoroughly enjoys the new hanging, and my brother-in-law, a serious museum buff, also raved about the layout after he visited the SBMA this year. After all, if you already know how the history of art unfolds in the West, then it is refreshing to see this variation on the theme. It is like watching a narrative unfold through a series of flashbacks and side stories. The way that the images are arranged makes the museum less like a lecture and more like a poem; everyone is asked to bring a strong measure of their own interpretation to the table.
The way the galleries are laid out also appeals to those who enjoy art, but who have less of an art history background. Because Picture Stories pays attention to subject matter, it is accessible to visitors who do the same. Judy Davison, a first-grade teacher from Sebastopol, California, who was visiting the galleries recently, had one semester of art history in college and has always wanted to take more classes about >>> art. She admitted that when she is in a museum she has little idea whether things are in chronological order or not, but she very much liked being able compare a number of depictions of the same subject, as the hanging at SBMA allowed her to do. She was particularly drawn to a series of images of arched bridges in the Ridley-Tree gallery, a painting by Monet, one by Matisse, and a photograph by Kertész. Looking at them, she explained, “I like how you can see what the different artists do with the same subject.” Describing the gallery as a whole she used the adjectives “friendly, open, inviting, easy-to-look-at.” “I love art,” she said “but I don’t know much about it. I don’t know why I like the way they have things arranged, but the room seems to make sense. It’s not all cluttered. It’s easy for someone who isn’t an expert to enjoy.”
Davison’s reaction is consistent with the feedback that the museum has been getting in general. According to Diana du Pont, the curator of the show, the response of the community has been “really positive. We’ve had nothing but positive feedback.” She attributes the success of this new way of doing things to the fact that the galleries are now both surprising and recognizable. “If you compare this with other museums, it’s unexpected. But this is how the world is today. People like it because it is more like their experience. Things aren’t just divided into different boxes. They’re all mixed together, in different layers.” Although the approach of Picture Stories will continue at SBMA, as special exhibitions come and go, the hanging of the permanent collection will shift and change. The works on display — particularly the works on paper — will rotate, offering a shifting visual feast that repays return visits many times over. Du Pont sees this way of arranging art as the future, not just for SBMA, but for other museums as well. Let’s hope she is right; if she is, it will be a delight for museum goers who enjoy finding something new every time they go to a museum.